Innocent Reflections (11/2021)
I was shocked and saddened to watch the recent panorama documentary 'Is the Church Racist'. One of the people featured in the documentary was somebody I had come across a couple of times and it was sad to see a once vibrant person so broken by what had happened to him. The documentary followed several clergy who had experienced both institutional and direct racism in the course of their ministry and showed how ineffective the complaints procedure had been. At one pivotal moment the presenter, in an interview with the Archbishop of York, slammed a great pile of reports about racism in the church from over the years on the table and challenged him, as an author of some of these reports, as to why they had been so ineffective. Towards the end, Dr Elizabeth Henry, who had been a key advisor to the Church of England on race relations, said she thought the church was finished because it was incapable of dealing with these issues. I noticed a degree of fatalism in my reaction - can we as a church ever move beyond the original sin of racism?
In this Eastertide when we celebrate our new life in Christ, and read through the compelling narratives of the early church in the Acts of the Apostles, the difference between the vision of the church presented and the church as we experience it today can seem pretty stark. We live in a time when the various failings of the church, in terms of the abuse scandal, racism and simply in the decline we are facing, are very much out there in the open for us all to see. Over this pandemic the response of the church has come in for a lot of criticism. It can be hard to find God in what often seems like an all-too-human and flawed institution.
Clearly there are many lessons we can learn, both in terms of our processes as a national church (particularly our complaints process), diversifying our leadership, and in terms of our behaviour as individuals. If we are to care for one another, and indeed love one another, these lessons need to be learnt. We would be ignoring the voice of the Holy Spirit if we were to ignore the cries of pain and suffering of the individuals in this documentary and the much wider problem they represent. We need to have safe places where the voices of everybody can be heard, and where all of us can reflect and grow by listening to the people who have been hurt, perhaps even hurt by me personally.
It's also worth remembering how insidious these issues are. The British monk Pelagius taught that because God had created humanity good (as all things created by God are good) and with free will, human beings had the autonomy and potential to be perfect in this life - in other words to avoid sin entirely. Against this, St Augustine argued that we are not as free as we think: we are conditioned by what has gone before. The evil in which we participate began before we were born and, except by the grace of God, it is impossible to be entirely free of its influence. The doctrine of original sin is often portrayed rather harshly, but it is in fact a rather important corrective against the kind of judgement that comes with Pelagianism. If we are completely free to be perfect, we have absolutely no excuse for not being so, and so those who fail can be easily dismissed and rejected - some way from the love and forgiveness of Jesus.
There are clear parallels between racism and original sin - especially in a church that in the 18th century profited from the slave trade, and a Church where, within living memories vicars turned people away from the church doors. Perhaps this even happened to some of you. All of this may have happened long ago, but still affects how we are today. As with so much in the church we need to try our best to live out the gospel, but we will fail in big and small ways. As in the writings of St Paul, we live in a time of now and not yet, where Christ has risen from the dead and evil has been defeated, and where we also wait for the promises of Christ to be fulfilled in heaven. This is no reason to stop trying, but we do also need to face the fact that the church, and we as individuals, will continue to get things wrong. When we get things wrong, we can only pray for grace, and most especially the grace of listening to the voices of those who have been hurt.
With love and prayers,